Jane Scott, leader of Wiltshire Council, knew nothing about local government when she was first elected to as a district councillor – but the start of her story will be familiar to many councillors.
‘I was asked to stand as a paper candidate in 1995 for North Wiltshire DC. I was told I couldn’t win but I did,’ she tells the Public Intelligence/The MJ podcast. ‘Two years later a similar thing happened. “Go for the county, you’ll not win”, they said, but I won by a very, very small majority of 15 votes. Three recounts and a very unhappy Liberal Democrat later and I got into the county council and was a dual hatter.’
Now a Baroness, her only dealings with the council before had been battling local authorities to enable her physically-handicapped daughter to get an education. ‘I think it was something about giving back. By that time I was comfortably off and my children had grown up...it seemed a good way of getting involved in the community,’ she says.
When the electoral officer congratulated her and handed her a ‘pack’ on being a new councillor, he said he would see her at the council offices. ‘I had to ask him where I should go because I had no idea where the council offices were’.
When she arrived at the council, Baroness Scott says it was very old-fashioned and ‘quite strange’. ‘I found it all a bit unbelievable. It wasn’t as professional as I thought it should be. It was all a bit silly at times, the politics side of it. But I soon got into the county council’s work and two years later, I felt we had gone up a tier.’
She says she went home to her husband and said: ‘This is serious stuff. This is life and death.’ It was the county that got her ‘hooked’ on local government.
‘I decided I wasn’t going to be very mouthy to begin with. I was going to sit. I was going to listen. And, I was going to learn.’
The-then leader of Wiltshire CC was Peter Chalke, who was also chair of the Conservatives at the Local Government Association. He gave her shadow responsibility for education and when they took over the council in 2001, she was promoted to deputy leader.
‘Peter decided not to stand in 2003. That’s when I became leader – the first woman in a very, very male county.’ Baroness Scott suggests there are not enough women in local government. ‘We need to do more work on this aspect as a family of local government because at present it is simply not good enough.’
Her leadership was very different to the ‘very traditional and old-fashioned way’ Cllr Chalke had run the county. ‘I could see the opportunities to change authorities. I hadn’t been there long enough to be bogged down by the politics of it all. I felt that a leader needed to be there full time.’
‘I spent the summer of 2006/07 sitting down with my then chief executive working through a projection for the next 10 years for Wiltshire and it looked awful, really dreadful,’ she says. With increased pressures on adult and children’s services, and poor infrastructure, she says: ‘I just could not see a future in it.’
Long before David Cameron’s vision for a Big Society, Baroness Scott had set out on a journey to get people to be more resilient and stronger in their communities. ‘We were trying to work with our districts.
That was quite difficult as it was two steps forward, one step back all the time. It was all about power and money,’ she says, and that is when the council decided to go for unitary status. ‘I thought Wiltshire needed a change in order to be sustainable. It was a no-brainer, but it did cause trouble,’ she admits.
It was a tough time, going against her party, but she stuck to her principles and believes it was the best thing for Wiltshire. ‘I never thought of it as being a county takeover. For me it was a great opportunity to change the council, to have a completely different culture. It was a new council and that was very important,’ she says. ‘It was going to be a dynamic organisation rather than a bit dull and old-fashioned.’
The peer adds that she is ‘doing my best’ to make sure the unitary debate does come back to the table for other councils. ‘I think we seriously have to look at ourselves and ask whether this the most efficient way of conducting local government in this country.’
Baroness Scott is not a big fan of devolution as it stands. She says it works for cities but not county areas, but adds: ‘If we have larger unitary councils out in rural areas I think we would have a stronger voice with government and if government had a simpler system of local government to work with, I think we could push for far more proper devolution.’
Wiltshire’s next move was to scrap the post of chief executive. At a time when she was making hundreds of people redundant, Baroness Scott considered whether the organisation needed a chief executive and concluded that it did not.
Instead, the council now has three corporate directors and the head of paid service role pivots between them. ‘I wouldn’t go back. I don’t think my cabinet would go back. But I’ve always said this is a personal thing. I’m not going to say to any other leader that this is the best thing to do,’ but she suggests the corporate director model was the biggest step the council took to break down the silo mentality of the past.
For now, Baroness Scott is balancing her position in the Lords and her role as council leader – but she says the next four years will be ‘transitional’. ‘I hope I can get a job somewhere which makes me useful.’
Of being a councillor, Baroness Scott says: ‘People don’t appreciate the hours and the passion people put in to do the job. We keep being told, “well, you are only volunteers”. You shouldn’t have volunteers looking after a billion pound budget. That’s not right. I think we should get the kudos we deserve as local councillors.’
To listen to the latest Public Intelligence/The MJ, podcast interview conducted by Mike Bennett, go to: www.themj.co.uk/podcasts